Dealing with bullying at work

Tuesday 15 October 2019
Office bullying should not be a part of your working life – we look at how to tackle the problem and make your employees feel safe at work again.
group of people walking in a line with one person walking ahead on their own

In all forms, bullying affects mental health and self-esteem – something this anonymous writer knows all too well. When she secured her dream job, she had no idea that her new colleagues would sour the entire experience and leave long-lasting psychological scars. After being on the receiving end of bullying from her line manager, she was advised by HR to lodge a formal complaint; however, when going through this procedure, she came to realise that neither her union or HR representatives had her best interests at heart. Although she won the employment tribunal and her employer was reprimanded, she is still affected by the events that transpired.

Gone are the days when bullying equated to name-calling or pulling out someone’s chair in the classroom; with the rise of social media and digital platforms, bullying can take on a more sinister threat, permeating all aspects of someone’s life. Bullying can manifest itself through malicious rumours, being undermined or excluded at work, being micro-managed or manipulated by their colleagues or manager, and being mocked or belittled either publicly or through online channels.

Bullying doesn’t end when you leave the workplace. Many people take the stress of work home with them – this can be compounded if your workload is deliberately kept overbearing (itself a form of bullying), and you feel that you need to work in the evenings to stay on top of it all.

If you’ve witnessed any type of bullying behaviour at work, it’s important to take action. This will not only assure your team that you value their safety at work, but also to show the accused bully that their behaviour will not be tolerated in a professional environment. As written in our Managing the Bully report, it is often preferable (unless the situation has deteriorated too far to allow this) to follow an unofficial, offrecord procedure, before resorting to an official one, and to attempt to resolve the problem with the parties involved. Invoking an official course of action at an early stage could make matters worse in some cases.

Is zero-tolerance the only policy?

Not necessarily. It’s down to your judgement to decide which actions merit which repercussions. An employee may not wish to make a formal complaint, but you may have witnessed bullying behaviour at work and want to take steps. Equally, you may feel that while certain actions have been interpreted as bullying, they were not intended to be threatening.

In line with your company policy, talk to both parties’ line managers to discuss next steps. You may feel that a first-time offence warrants a lesser punishment – you may also feel that this first episode of misconduct is too aggressive to let them stay. In either case, remember that the processes of dealing with bullying involve both parties, and the victim must have a say in how you can help them feel safe again at work. This may mean moving between teams so that they no longer have direct contact with their bully, or moving to a different location in the office, or changing their line manager. If they work in shifts, adjust the schedules so that their shifts don’t overlap, and ensure there’s always a third party present.

Making long-term changes

Having a zero-tolerance policy has two longer-term effects: not only is the bully no longer in the workplace, they become an example that no unwanted or negative behaviours will be tolerated. – though it’s always challenging to ensure this doesn’t ever happen again. Moving forwards, try adjusting your hiring process to include an assessment on ‘culture fit’. This can be based on personal hobbies, language used in the interview, and social media presence. Identifying the qualities you desire in a candidate (and not just hard skills) can help to eliminate those who might be intimidating, biased, or hold prejudices.

Don’t forget that while changes are implemented from the top down, many triggers for change come from the bottom up. Why not set up an ‘Honesty Box’ email account for employees to email into with suggestions, complaints, and feedback? Ensure that each employee knows their suggestions will be considered anonymously – unless their complaint is of such a nature that formal action must be taken – and hold company-wide councils where the senior managers go through the emails and talk about the steps they’re taking to combat any negative cultural issues.

Open channels of communication

To combat any ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality, one technique is to appoint one person per team to be a ‘bullying and harassment advisor’. (You can also widen this to be the mental health watchdog, LGBT helper, etc.) This person can look out for the team and make sure everyone is working and interacting well with each other. This individual can also be the informal first point of contact for those in the team feeling bullied at work, and together they can decide whether a formal complaint should be lodged and what steps to take next.

If your organisation’s budget allows, you could arrange for a counsellor to come in at regular intervals, so that your employees can speak to a professional who they may not have had the funds to access. Taking steps to show that you care about your employees’ professional relationships and working environments will make them feel safer, more motivated, and happier at work.

For advice on how to start this difficult conversation on bullying, read our Managing the Bully report, and see how a legal mediator can help you settle workplace disputes.

Image: Jehyun Sung Unsplash